Most Israelis pass through the central bus station in south Tel Aviv as fast as they can. It is dirty and decaying, its maze of corridors a haven for drug addicts. Abel, who fled Eritrea 10 years ago, doesn’t like working here but says he does it for his kids.
It is Sunday afternoon and other Eritreans are crowding the phone kiosk where he has worked for seven years. “Every day [the bus station] gets worse,” Abel says. “They don’t do improvements. It used to be great. It’s not advancing now, I don’t know why.”
When architect Ram Karmi began work on the central bus station in 1967, it was to be one of the hallmarks of Tel Aviv: the largest bus station in the world, a brutalist colossus with seven storeys and a modern shopping centre and theatre. Karmi, who also designed Israel’s supreme court building and the third terminal of its main Ben Gurion airport, envisioned that two million people would pass through a year. He also designed it to be vast and confusing to navigate, thinking lost shoppers would spend more.
But by the time it opened in 1993 following decades of delays, Tel Aviv’s centre had shifted north. The southern neighbourhood surrounding the station, long a gathering place for newly arrived migrants, was increasingly neglected. Today south Tel Aviv is regarded by most Tel Avivians as the underbelly of the city, and the station “the monstrosity.”
The station’s ambitious vision and flawed realisation – and the way it reflects the priorities and problems of modern Israeli society – are the focus of Central Bus Station, a documentary by Czech director Tomáš Elšík. “I realised there’s a society inside the building,” he tells Guardian Cities. “The building itself is empty without the people.”
From the late 2000s on, the Israeli government began sending African asylum seekers straight from the border with Egypt to nearby Levinsky Park. They soon they made the neighbourhood theirs, much to the chagrin of other Israeli residents from marginalised communities, like the long-standing Mizrachi and newer Russian Jews.
With the African and Asian people who work in the station largely shunned by mainstream society, the building fosters a community like no other in Israel. Amid the shops selling clothes and knick-knacks are a Yiddish book centre, a Filipino church, refugee health clinics, a military command centre. On Saturdays, when public transport shuts down for the Jewish Sabbath, the fourth floor transforms into a Filipino food market.
Nearly two decades ago Yonathan Mishal, an artist and activist, started exploring the station and became hooked by its hidden urban subculture. “Little by little I started gathering information mainly by walking around and talking to people,” he says. “There isn’t any information where all of this is covered in one place.”
Mishal and others in a collective offer tours of the station every Friday at 2pm, alternating weekly between Hebrew and English. Israelis do not consider their society to be as diverse as the station shows it to be, he says. “When you think about Israeli society, of course it’s very diverse, but no one thinks about it that way. People think you’re unified, you’re Israeli.”
Mishal appears in Elšík’s documentary and praises the film as accurately capturing the “kind of weird” atmosphere inside the station, as though there is no sense of time or direction. He compares it to the military in that both are “connected to every part of society” in Israel. The station serves as a gathering point, bomb shelter and command centre for people during times of war, as well as a transit hub for soldiers passing through to their base, work or home.
“In times of conflict it kind of transforms instantly into its military function,” says Mishal. “But it’s always in the background, like everything else.”
Now there are plans to revitalise – and gentrify – south Tel Aviv, and local leaders want the central bus station closed in favour of smaller bus hubs around the city. But the “white elephant” won’t be budged: it is made from so much cement that it is next to impossible to safely and economically tear down.
So the station will remain for the foreseeable future. It is “not only a weird space”, Mishal says at the end of Elšík’s film – the neglected urban space is also, somewhat paradoxically, a site of escape.
“The central bus station is not interested at all in who you are or what you want to do,” he says. “It takes some effort but if you cross that line and step inside, you get an opportunity to have a safe space to be whoever you want to be.”
- The world premiere of Central Bus Station screens at Sheffield Doc/Fest on Saturday 9 June and Tuesday 12 June, followed by a Q&A with director Tomáš Elšík and producer Jitka Kotrlová
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